Match previews

Preview: Union at Columbus Crew

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Mapfre Stadium
When: Saturday, March 12 at 7:30 pm
Watch: Live Well Network, MLS Live
Whistle: Hilario Grajeda; Linesmen: James Conlee,Jason White; Fourth Official: Geoff Gamble

Fresh off a disheartening opening day defeat to one of the best teams in the Western Conference, Philadelphia Union face one of the best in the Eastern Conference on Saturday.

And just to ramp up the anxiety level, Jim Curtin announced that Maurice Edu might be fit to face Columbus Crew… when they travel to Talen Energy Stadium on June 1.

There is no denying it: A subpar performance against an admittedly strong Dallas side has pushed aside much of the offseason’s hope and goodwill. Not only did Philly look the weaker team on Sunday, they looked low on ideas and disorganized in back.

But it is important to remember three things:

  1. It was only one game. And it was a tough one.
  2. It was MLS game one for three members of the back line. And it was against one the league’s best playmakers and probably the league’s best winger.
  3. It would be nigh impossible for Fabinho to be so out of sorts two games in a row.

That said, the team that tore Philly’s left back to shreds last April is going to try their best to do it again.

Early in last week's match, Federico Higuain drifted to a right back role and Harrison Afful snuck into the center, making Higuain hard to track without losing a body in the middle.

Early in last week’s match, Federico Higuain drifted to a right back role and Harrison Afful snuck into the center, making Higuain hard to track without losing a body in the middle.

Crew be Crewin’

To be honest, Columbus previews can be a bit dull to write when Gregg Berhalter has his full roster available. The Crew impose their system on a game, and if it works, they flourish. Columbus was arguably the better team for long stretches of their opening match against Portland. But the Timbers have a few difference makers that, when they got in good positions, made the difference.

The Columbus system is easy to see and easy to describe in vague soccer-y terms, but it is difficult to fully understand and execute. The basic notion is that movement and space have a circular relationship. Movement creates space, and that space can be occupied again through movement. This commitment to constantly stepping in and out of holes, and the creative way in which it is done, can leave defenses chasing shadows. Portland struggled mightily to track and close down Federico Higuain early in last weekend’s match, with the Argentinian playmaker dropping deep, curling out to the left, and generally hiding as far away from Diego Chara as he could. This movement allowed Harrison Afful at right back and Ethan Finlay on the right wing to slide into the center when Kei Kamara checked back into the space Chara would have occupied if he wasn’t sleuthing for Higuain.

There. That’s a general description of how Columbus’ movement pries open a defense. So why doesn’t everyone do it?

It’s hard

In order to reap the full rewards of their spacing and movement, the Crew need everybody on the same page. If Kamara drops deep and picks up the ball and only sees Tony Tchani standing still asking for a return pass, with no wingers darting behind the defensive line and no fullbacks flying up the wing to provide width, the entire thing breaks down. And when it breaks down, it can be costly.

The Crew shipped 53 goals last season, the most of any playoff team save Toronto. Yet most observers would say that the Toronto defense was pretty awful and the Columbus back line was simply reaping the rewards of a system that can put the central defenders and holding midfielders in difficult positions multiple times each match.

Trapp and Tchani rarely misplace short passes or give the ball away because they play quickly and are willing to go long when necessary.

Trapp and Tchani rarely misplace short passes or give the ball away because they play quickly and are willing to go long when necessary.

And it’s true. The Columbus defense is not bad, but it does get less protection on the flanks than many others. When the Crew lose the ball during an offensive set, they leave big gaps on the wings that a quick, accurate pass can exploit. On Saturday, Dairon Asprilla did a lot of the exploiting for Portland, but he also did a lot of the iffy finishing.

In order to compete with the Crew, Philly needs to be able to attack those spaces quickly on the counterattack. Against Dallas, the Union struggled to find wingers with outlets in part because Dallas effectively forced Philly’s wide players to track deep. But the Union also left too much space between their holding midfielders and Ilsinho. On the few occasions when Nogueira, Carroll, and Ilsinho were a tight knit defensive group, Philly was able to play a short first pass to Ilsinho so the Brazilian could either dribble into space or find the feet of an attacker. The Union didn’t generate many good shots, but they did do a surprisingly good job of pressuring the Dallas box when they managed to go forward with Ilsinho and both wingers.

The second important offensive element that was missing on Sunday was space creation prior to receiving an outlet pass. Chris Pontius was more effective at finding holes because Atiba Harris was far more likely than Maynor Figueroa to charge up the pitch in attack. Leo Fernandes’ passing chart shows just how rarely he was able to receive the ball on the half-turn. Fernandes is not just playing short passes back to Rosenberry because he wants to, it is because he has not created any space between himself and the defender on his back. This strategy may be somewhat effective with MLS refs who think all contact through the back is a foul, but Mark Geiger is no such ref. Fernandes’ positioning also makes it difficult for Rosenberry to push as high as Jim Curtin wants him.

Philly’s wingers need to check out then check in, or check in then check out. Leave the bodying up to CJ Sapong, who will have an easier time of it against Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro than he did against perpetual high school wrestler Walker Zimmerman.

Controlling the Columbus attack

Pointing out the minor flaws in Columbus’ system does little to help a team stop it. The Crew are efficient in the final third and are more than willing to shell the box with crosses if that is what the opposition grants them. The real beauty of Columbus’ game plan is that it generates a high volume of shots because a well-versed squad rarely gives up the ball in bad areas. Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani made five incomplete passes in their own half against Portland. Now you might say: “Hey, that’s only two fewer than Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira made!” And you would be right!

But then you would notice that Columbus had ten percent more possession than the Union and attempted over 90 more passes.

Transition defense

Notably, both Philly and Columbus had issues stopping transitions down the flanks. However, the Crew have an experienced pair of central defenders who will adjust. How will the Union’s untested back line learn from last week’s defeat?

Ken Tribbett and Anderson struggled to understand how to handle Dallas’ wingers, often tracking Max Urruti when Fabian Castillo was the more dangerous runner. Tribbett, in particular, will need to communicate more effectively with the midfield to figure out to handle Kamara when he drops into space. Against Dallas, Tribbett was caught cheating to the center when he needed to call Anderson over or simply adjust his body position to account for Castillo.

Leo Fernandes and Chris Pontius were creative close to goal, but they rarely got there. Fernandes had trouble creating space on his wing.

Leo Fernandes and Chris Pontius were creative close to goal, but they rarely got there. Fernandes had trouble creating space on his wing.

Lineup changes?

With Mo Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta on the shelf, there will likely be few lineup changes on Saturday. The most likely adjustments will be on the wing and at attacking midfield. Roland Alberg’s energetic and physical debut was a welcome breath of fresh air on Saturday. Whether he can show the same verve over a longer period of time is difficult to say, but he should certainly get the chance.

Leo Fernandes may also lose his spot after a listless showing on Sunday. Philly has plenty of pieces to plug in on the wing, and Fernandes is much more effective facing goal than he is when checking back on the wing. Furthermore, Fernandes offered very little defensive support to Keegan Rosenberry, and that simply will not work against a Columbus side that would push fullbacks into the stands behind the opposition goal if they could.

Jim Curtin could deploy Alberg out wide or introduce Sebastien Le Toux for energy. Either one could work, and it is up to the coaching staff to make sure whoever takes up that wide role understands their defensive responsibilities. After all, it was Waylon Francis who put in the first cross to knock the wind out of Philly in April 2015. And he was wide, wide open when he did it.

Prediction: Columbus 3-1 Philadelphia

2016_Union_CLB It will be interesting to see if the Union can force Columbus to settle for crosses and, if so, whether they can defend those crosses against the likes of Kei Kamara. Portland has a perfect central defensive pairing to combat crossing, and it likely earned them a win on Sunday. The Union have size in back, but Dallas was able to get to the endlines so consistently that Tribbett and Anderson were rarely tested in the air. They certainly will be this week.

The Union do not need to beat Columbus on the road. That would be hard to do, and only four teams did it in 2015. But Philly needs to show, at bare minimum, more fire than they displayed in Dallas. Tranquillo Barnetta’s movement was sorely missed last week, but his attitude was an even bigger loss. The Union will not be as athletic as Columbus, but that simply means they need to let the Crew know they will have to win a scrappy contest to open their home season with a win.

Jim Curtin wanted more pressure, a higher line, and more fire this year. In the preseason, he often got it. The Union need to recapture that spirit on Saturday to have a chance against another very good opponent.


  1. Can we get Fabinho out of here? Seriously? “Oh well it’s be hard for him to be terrible two games in a row”!!! That’s where we are with our starting LB?!?!?!?!

    How many times does the other team need to relentlessly attack our left after identifying him as our weakest link? This is pathetic.

    • Yeah, also, a counterpoint to “Fabinho can’t be that bad two games in a row:”

      Exhibit A: Andrew Wenger 2015.

  2. Given that Edu will be out for the next 10-15 years, wouldn’t make sense to start at least talking about sending Creavalle out into the mix?

    If this is a season of rebuilding and establishing a product, i feel like the 25 year old has a significantly brighter future on the field than BC.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I have been thinking about why Adam Cann does not think that might happen, because clearly he doesn’t in spite of identifying a disconnect between the two DCMs and the four attackers as a flaw. 1. He may expect Alberg to have greater range in general than did Ilsinho. 2. He may think that the inexperience of MLS that defines his expected Union CB tandem needs BC in front of it as a shield, rather than longer ranged and faster Creavalle leaving them a bit more exposed to Higuain sometimes.
      My highly presumptuous attempt to read Adam Cann’s mind is in no way whatsoever meant to be disrespectful or intrusive. If I should never do so again, I will not.

      • 1. I truly believe Alberg will be a big spark with his first MLS start.
        2. Sadly though, if we took that approach with every position in our back 4 our average age for our midfield would need to be somewhere in the mid 30s…

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        late Twenties! Which it would be with Edu, 29, Nogueira 27′ and Barnetta 30. There was a plan, … .

      • Not far off! But the underlying theme is that I have not been sold on Creavalle as a holding midfielder specifically because he has been drawn out of position quite easily in the past. Against Columbus, that’s just deadly for the Union. BC may be slow these days, but he’s generally reading the game well, albeit not reacting to it as quickly as one might like.

        Regarding Alberg, I don’t know about greater range, but I think his general defensive positioning might be deeper than Ilsinho, which I think is necessary to clog up the middle against the Crew.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Creavalle seemed better about that in the 2nd half of the preseason game against Red Bulls when they were down a man and he came on for BC, if I am remembering correctly.
        I certainly agree that last season he ran around in circles whenever it was they put him out as a DCM. The NYRB game was the first time I thought he might stick with the team past Edu’s return to the field.

      • I agree re: Creavalle in preseason. I was surprised at how well he played while maintaining his aggressiveness. But I’m still very hesitant to slot him in to the lineup against a team that moves well.

  3. the back line should stay high but much more compact than last game. The back 4 or 5 should not drift out laterally past the 18 yd verticals and clog up the middle. Crosses are generally the easiest thing to defend . Play for a draw with opportunistic counters, Kind of like portland. Let them run around in circles, dont follow, just stay zonal and compact, Very few teams know how to attack compact defenses. Just look what happened to the Red Bulls last weekend. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

    • Totally agree, although it took very good games from Borchers and Ridgewell to keep Kamara quiet last weekend. He’s one of the best in MLS at creating his own space in the box. Even letting Columbus cross all game can be risky when you aren’t trotting out two very big, very experienced central defenders.

  4. pragmatist says:

    Columbus may be the best team in the league, from top to bottom. There are no massive superstars. You can argue Kamara and Higuain, but they aren’t Giovinco, Keane, Pirlo, etc., they are the next level below. Still awesome, but not the “magicians.”
    With that in mind, everyone needs to be at their absolute best for 90 minutes. My hope is that last week woke everyone up, and the Union will come out with a renewed vigor towards the game.
    My expectation is much less. 3-1 sounds like a fair prediction, although that may require more heroics from Blake.

  5. If both Marquez and Gaddis are good to go, I think they both start this week, Marquez because of his speed and athleticism, and Gaddis because he is a veteran and this is a tough team to play on the road.
    Agree with Alberg and Le Toux stepping in.
    I would be interested to hear the thoughts behind picking Tribbet over Anderson, Adam.
    Only because neither really stood out to me as better then the other in the first game. Both did a few good things and made a few mistakes. It is a coin flip to me without being able to watch both in training.

    • pragmatist says:

      I’d go with Marquez and Tribbet in the middle. But if Ray is ready, the only place I would put him is on the left. No, he doesn’t add to the offense, but he is better defensively (low bar) than Fabinho.
      Let Rosenberry grow into the position. He has the goods.

      • Why Tribbet over Anderson?
        That is the discussion I was trying to start because neither really put themselves above the other on the depth chart to me.

    • I watched last weeks game on the DVR after reading all your comments – yes I’m a glutton for punishment.
      Time and time again I saw Tribbet meaninglessly pound the ball long, while Anderson seemed composed in his passes out of the back.
      Agree that Marquez should start, but why not paired with Anderson? Why do you think Curtin would pick Tribbet?
      Would also like to see Ilsinho instead of LeToux for at least the first 60 minutes.

      • I’m totally fine with the Marquez and Anderson pairing at CB.

      • That is the discussion I was trying to start…why Tribbet over Anderson or why Anderson over Tribbet?
        Neither really stood out to me in the Dallas game so to me it is a coin flip but I was curious what other’s thought and why they would prefer one over the other.

  6. It would be nigh impossible for Fabinho to be so out of sorts two games in a row.
    I sure hope Fabinho doesn’t see that as some sort of challenge…

  7. Yaro at the 6. Let’s see it.

    • pragmatist says:

      Yup. +1

    • Now is as good a time as any

    • With Edu out for 12 matches something has to change. BC was a (decent at best) option for 1 game, but with 12 more we need to start shaping our prospects.
      I would lean more towards Creavalle due to his experience (limited but still more than zero) in the league and in the position but i really like the upside Yaro would have if it worked out. He is relatively undersized as a centerback. Could be a great fit if the technical staff could convert him properly.
      I think a major question comes into play either way: If either replacement bodes well, what happens June 1?

      • pragmatist says:

        You mean when the summer transfer window opens? 😉
        Yeah, Pandora’s Box will fly open at that point…

      • I think we all know Curtin is going with BC, therefore I’m starting the ABBC movement!

        Anyone But Brian Carroll

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        It won’t be June 1st.
        The bone has to heal completely, and it is at the stage early enough in the healing process that it can do no weight-bearing things. All of us who have heard about broken bones have heard 6-8 weeks. We are to May 5th before we can reasonably expect him to be fully done with the crutches.

        Only then can he begin to rebuild what he has lost. Once he’s closer to full speed he can begin some team-related work outs to learn this season’s adjustments. I’d look for him to get minutes with BSFC by July 1st.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      They need Yaro to develop into the burner in the back necessary to run down leaks in a high line keeping defense. Marquez was decent last year, but you can never have too much speed in the back line if you intend to leave acres of green available behind you. Brains can often anticipate, but it only takes one break down to render the entire plan moot.
      Size I am less worried about. Javier Mascherano is no giant, neither was Carles Pujols. Yaro may need to add upper body strength. But think Mascherano v Ibrahimovich.

  8. I would like to see Ilsinho replace Fernandes on the right wing, rather than starting LeToux. I agree the frenchman brings energy, but the Brazilian has better technique and can associate better with Alberg and Rosenberry on that right flank. LeToux can still come in in the 70th minute to run at the Columbus defense.

    • I agree. We know what we get in LeToux, I want to see Ilsinho and Alberg playing together. If they aren’t 90 minute match fit, which seems likely, LeToux can come in later. We aren’t likely to get a win, so I want see what they offer.

    • Ilsinho and Rosenberry on the same flank spells disaster to me versus Columbus. Ilsinho doesn’t track back and Rosenberry got burned by Castillo more than once, Finley and Merram will do the same or whoever is playing the flank for Columbus these days. And there will be no cover and once again an outside back will look lost.

  9. I love watching players cycle into recently vacated spaces… kind of beautiful…like the ebbing and out…in and out.

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    I remember being drunk and watching them lose at Columbus last year… a blowout 4-1 or something like that… I think I will be drunk again this year!! Plus, I can’t lose… if they pull out win or hell, even draw, I’ll be drunk, so it’ll be SO MUCH BETTER!! HAHA!
    Sorry nothing to add to the conversation today… just some rants and self pity.

  11. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Adam Cann emphasizes Columbus’s vulnerability to possession loss in the flank channels. Given how we are positioning our non-back line wing channel players this season, are we not similarly vulnerable?

  12. Old Soccer Coach says:

    ” … A Columbus side that would push fullbacks into the stands behind the opposition goal if it could,” deserves recognition as effective hyperbole, in my view.
    Thank you for the smile! I certainly need it, and I doubt I am alone.

  13. Your lineup does not line up with the ratings for last week.
    The two least effective players on the pitch,by acclimation, Fabinho and Carroll, remain as starters. Most felt they should be taken off the roster. Wa sup?

  14. Jim Presti says:

    Another long season begins…

  15. JediLos117 says:

    We need a goal bad…
    Crew 3-0

  16. What is it with LiveWell network? I don’t have an HD channel on Comcast?

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